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Time of death: six thirty a.m.

Awoken with a start from a restless sleep, I grope not for my watch or the battery-operated alarm clock. I do not reach for my smudged glasses, either, but instead, fumble for the switch on the floor to turn on the Christmas tree lights. The miniature lights twinkle. The early, frigid darkness sparkles like counterfeit jewels. Tears dry then moisten as another surge of recognition consumes me.

My mother is going to die.

Save the three days I slept in the ICU waiting room still dressed in the suit I wore when the call from the emergency room about my mother’s hemorrhagic stroke came, this sofa has been my bed. Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room. I stack the pillows on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, piling worn blankets and duvets and stray clothing on the lumpy mattress.
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I read by the light of Christmas tree lights. The lights glow day and night, trying to stave off a sense of impending doom boiling in the pit of my empty stomach. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot drift off, even if it’s only for a single hour or two.

Drained of sleep and faith, I drift to the living room window and tentatively reach out to touch the frozen glass. Last night, the wind blew in from the north, squealing and moaning, creaking and wailing like me. Snow tendrils creep across the roads. The slender cobwebs braid an icy lair. More than a foot of fresh snow has fallen in the night. My mother’s apartment building has lived for over thirty years is incarcerated in an ice prison. The sky, still pregnant with winter, belies the tempered blizzard, which will likely rage on for a few more hours.

Though a snowplow breaks the path of winter, pushing back the night and the snow’s accumulation, I still wonder if it will be possible to drive to the hospital once the anemic sun rises.

I wander into the galley kitchen. Turn on the electric kettle. Toss a tea bag in a mug. Collect the cream a few days past its expiration date from the refrigerator. Wait. When the pot boils, I pour the water into the cup, watching the teabag bleed ginger brown against the white bone china. Absently, I press and push against the pouch urging it to steep a little faster—lists cascade across my mind.

Setting the steaming mug on the dining room table, I push back the week’s mail: bills that need to be paid, Letters to be answered. Christmas cards have arrived from people who are oblivious to my mother’s condition. Pulling my ‘master’ list of To-Dos, I grasp a pen and start adding tasks to a clean page. Visit the bank manager. Make an appointment with the investment administrator. Buy multiple expandable files and a label maker. Return a page worth of phone calls. Buy more international phone cards.​​

Day Nine: another day of shuttling between my mother’s bedside and hunting down elusive doctors in the maze of hospital hallways. Another day of waiting for updates about my mother’s condition that are few and far between. Her medical situation is not improving, nor is it markedly shifting into the positive column either. Though the bleed in her head shows a mild retraction, its absorption into her brain matter has stalled.

I am lost in the perfunctory world of list-making when the phone rings. I glance at the mantel clock on the piano – 6:20 a.m. The shrill ring of the telephone at this time of the day does not unnerve me. The phone rings until after midnight most evenings with daily calls from or to England or Australia, often commencing by 5:30 a.m. I am juggling four time zones leaving me stretched like a taut drum around the world’s circumference. I pick up the telephone receiver and mumble a distracted hello.

“Is this Anna So Coc E?” The voice is unfamiliar. When I do not answer immediately, the hesitant voice repeats the question—my mind’s roll-a-dex grinds. No accent.

“Yes. I am Anna Sochocky,” I respond, crisply refusing to allow a tone of gloom seep into my voice. Still, my hands begin to shake like a person struck down by tremors. I put the pen down and wait.

“Ms. So Coc E. This is a member of the nursing staff on your mother’s ward. Your mother went into respiratory arrest at six a.m. We have been executing chest compressions for twenty minutes, but your mother is unresponsive. Would you like us to continue with chest compressions and intubate her,” the anonymous nurse’s question hangs by a thread in the silence? The nurse persists. “Did you sign a hospital medical directive? Does your mother have a resuscitation order,” the nurses fire off companion questions.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead. For a few seconds, I cannot speak, do not speak. I stare out the window into the black morning. The wind grows fierce. The invisible squall’s direction changes and tosses the snow into somersaults. I have grieved for nine days. From the moment I walked into the ICU unit, I knew that my mother was gone. Why does death always arrive in the darkest part of the night or early morning? I gaze into the blizzard wind.

My mother is dying. My mother is dead.

I return to the present with a vengeance. “I gave you copies of the medical power of attorney stating that my mother did not want extraordinary measures taken. I signed the medical directive that you gave me three days ago, specifically not to do any chest compressions or intubation. Don’t you have these instructions noted on her chart or in a file somewhere?”

I march around the tiny living room, desperate to be focused through the rapid onset of tears, tripping over the corner legs of the unmade sofa bed, looking for my clothes, my shoes, my watch, my heart.

“Stop compressions now. DO NOT intubate my mother. Mom wouldn’t want any of this! You’ve probably broken her ribs pounding on her chest! Stop breaking her! I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I can be.”

“Ok. We will stop all resuscitative efforts,” confirming my answer. I am sorry,” the nurse adds before the receiver tone clicks in my ear.

Half-dressed and stunned, I dial Janet’s number. When she answers, I cannot speak. I cannot breathe. I must breathe.

“What’s happened,” Janet whispers.

“She’s gone, Janet. Mom is gone.” Leaping to my feet and weaving around the bed, the chairs, the loss, I race to the kitchen sink and try to spit, expecting to find acidic bile in the basin. My stomach is empty. I emit dry heaves, instead. I nod mutely into the phone, listening to panicked noises on the other end of the line. A chair’s legs scrape across the floor. Boots are selected and quickly discarded. Affronted grunts from Janet’s two dogs register their displeasure with being disturbed in the pre-dawn dark.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. It will take me a few minutes to warm up the truck, and it’s snowing hard again, but I’ll be there as soon as I can. I am so sorry. We’ll get through this together, ok,” but Janet’s weak declaration dissolves amidst choking sobs on both ends of the line.

With nothing left to say, I hang up the phone and aimlessly begin to throw the pillows off the sofa bed and fold blankets. Halfway through pushing the mattress into the hidden compartment, the frame refuses to collapse. The sofa bed is stuck. I am stuck, too.

Do I get on the phone or finish getting dressed? I crumble to the carpet and lean against the bent steel frame. Who do I call next? My husband, of course, but should I call the funeral home before we get to the hospital? Will anyone even answer the phone at this time of day? Should I post a notice on the website that I have been using to update people about Mom’s condition?

The tree lights fuse. The ornaments bleed color into a watery pool. I cannot breathe. I must breathe. Struggling to my feet, I shove the bed violently into place and reconstruct the sofa, cramming pillows onto the frame and fluffing the accent ones into place. The phone rings a second time.

Believing it is Janet to tell me her truck has skidded into a snowdrift, I answer the phone with a question – are you stuck? The person on the other end of the line is not Janet, but the hospital again tells me that one of the nurses found my mother’s pulse. Sign of life is thready, but there is a pulse.

My mother is being transported to the ICU. How can this be? Is she alive after all? My mother’s still alive.

I hang up the phone and toss the receiver onto the sofa. Wriggling into another sweater, I am zipping up my boots when the phone rings a third time. Once again, an anonymous nurse asks me to confirm my name and follows with an apology. “We are sorry, but we were mistaken. Your mother does not have a pulse. Time of death six-thirty.”

By now, any tears of mine have evaporated. Dulled and confused by the hospital’s conflicting messages, I scream without a hint of grace into the phone receiver. “What the hell are you people doing? You violate my mother’s wishes and ignore or cannot FIND the directive I signed, the PDA you asked me to bring to the hospital. She’s dead. She’s alive. Now she’s dead. Are you sure this time, or do you want to check again? Leave my mother alone, for Christ’s sake. You have done more than enough.”

Racing on the edge of madness, I slam the receiver down on its cradle.

After nine days of ambiguity, my mother is dead, and I have moved up a generation.

Cremation changes our deaths

Marking the first loss

When a man answered the phone at a local Minneapolis crematorium, I prefaced the reason for my call with feeble qualifiers for my inquiry. My father died and chose cremation; I began. Recently, he asked. No. A long time ago. I decided not to be present, not to see his body before the cremation. Would it be possible for me to visit with a staff member about the cremation process? The man on the other end of the line received my question graciously. I was thankful. Come by tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., he replied. I hung up the phone and exhaled.

I arrived at the cremation society the next day and sat in a mauve room with lace curtains and low light. A mahogany table sat between two finely upholstered chairs, the fabric the shade of the painted walls. A matching loveseat faced the wall to my left, perpendicular to the seat in which I fidgeted. The muted light cast motionless shadows of a marble urn on the wall. A vase with a lid, I thought ruefully. Outside, a hearse idled, the driver waiting for the signal to proceed to the cemetery. In a room of an exquisite quiet, barely alert to the strains of classical music wafting through the building, I waited.

Daughter grieves for a father.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky died on June 30, 1980.

The door opened. I introduced myself to a man in his forties or fifties, with chestnut eyes magnified by thick lenses. After explaining the reasons for my visit, he appeared both curious and solicitous. He spoke slowly, listing the available alternatives for concluding services: burial, cremation, entombment, and donation to a medical facility for research purposes. Thirty-three percent of dispositions are cremations. Concern over the amount of space set aside for cemeteries, more than the cost, accounts for cremation’s rising popularity, though the choice to be cremated does not preclude a funeral. Indeed, he encouraged final services for both the benefit of the deceased as well as the living.

The man paused while I scribbled notes. He crossed his leg and stroked his well-kept beard. When I asked him why he chose to become a funeral director, he replied that he came of age at a time in history when death did not frighten the living, when the passing of a loved one was marked over a period of days and months to accommodate the tides of grief.

Our conversation turned to the desires of the departed and their families. What is the most unusual item, in your experience, that a person has been buried with? I asked. Raising his hands for emphasis, he ticked off a litany of things he once deposited in a casket of a woman: a six-pack of beer, Eddie Arnold records, a Dairy Queen cup, two pairs of socks, some carpeting, and a bottle of whiskey. She loved beer and whiskey, Eddie Arnold, and Dairy Queen ice cream. Her feet were always cold, and after years in the same house, she finally saved enough to carpet the floors.

As he finished the list, the funeral director remarked, “Good thing we put the body in the casket first!” After forty minutes in conversation, I was convinced that his gentle commitment to both the living and the dead, and the pride with which he spoke could melt a stone. I asked to see the crematorium. I followed the funeral director through the hushed hallways. I could not help but think I was slightly mad to be in this place on my lunch hour, as if I was an amateur reporter scribbling notes for a three-inch article in a neighborhood paper, only to be lost amidst the want ads and garage sale notices. At the bottom of the stairs, a compact maze of rooms and hallways unfolded like the cellars underneath a restaurant.

The cold temperature of preservation breathed between pale, gray walls. I swallowed hard, realizing the draft originated from refrigeration. Silently, I told myself not to cry in front of this kind man when he opened the door to the cremation chamber. Usually, a cremation lasts between two to four hours he began. Most family members do not attend. In some communities, like in the Hindu culture, tradition requires the oldest son to light the pyre or push the ignition button in contemporary crematoriums. Once laid in a shallow cardboard container with handle grips, each body is placed inside the brick chamber. Varied sources of heat reach temperatures of 2,000 to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Skin, organs, and muscles vaporize immediately.

Dr. Serhij Sochocky, circa 1980

After cremation, a body’s silhouette, mapped by bone fragments, lingers. The cranium, femur, tibia, humerus, and sternum fragments are swept into a container beneath the chamber and are ground to ashes. Though his lips moved, gradually, his softly spoken commentary evaporated, and I fell into the real reason for my visit. I was seeking forgiveness.

Forgiveness for turning away from my mother’s sage counsel that I see my father one last time. Forgiveness for swallowing my grief so wholly until it poisoned my spirit’s well. Forgiveness for disavowing any intimation, my grief required a marker. And forgiveness for failing to see the affirmation of life in the rituals left behind after death.

Sometimes it takes years to mark a loss, especially when the loss is not only the inevitability of death but the passage of a history that has defined you.

Moving up a generation

After the private funeral, one of the attendants assigned to manage my mother’s services leads me into the room set aside for the visitation. Trays of hand-cut sandwiches, bowls of marigold yellow potato salad, and a selection of sugar cookies arranged in buffet style line white linen-covered table. Strong coffee brews. Classical music pipes into the room. I am alone for a moment. To assuage my scarce appetite, I pour a Styrofoam cup of coffee and move to stand by the ice-etched window. Outside, after nights of sky-saturated storms, the sun shines, dazzling warmth into the room. Tempered by mourning and memory, I turn away from the glaring reflection of fresh snow.

I have grieved in this room before.

Once upon a time, doctors and nurses streamed into this funeral parlor. My mother and I sat on a plush floral sofa. Synthetic. Lifeless. On display. Strangers to me competed for my mother’s attention and offered me posthumous advice. Be strong like your father. Do well in school, Anna. Face after face drifted past. Everyone knew my name. I knew so few and stayed silent. The voices of former patients reverently recounted how my father had saved their lives. His passion and fierceness beat back my illness, balding men testified. Friends from school huddled around the entrance to the same room I stand in now. Only when their mothers nudged them did my confused friends enter. Emotionally stunted by adolescence, none of us had the vocabulary for loss.

No sandwiches. No salad or cookies.

The room thirty years ago lacked reassurance, so the morning of my father’s funeral, I set my grief on my dresser, promising to return to it another day. Thirty years later, I cannot afford to be silenced and disengaged by grief again.

Librarians, like doctors and educated wolves, travel in packs. Gathering as police officers or military personnel do when one of their own has fallen, my mother’s co-workers stream in from the freezing temperatures — a circle of women sporting tightly permed heads and sensible winter boots forms around me. The woman who drove the bookmobile when I was a child, Shirley, timidly enters the room. Three decades fill the distance between us. We hug awkwardly.

Bookmobile, circa 1975

“Do you still check out too many books, Anna? Your mother and I used to have to edit your stack each week. Your mother was such a special lady,” Shirley pronounces, moving to blow her nose.

“Well, instead of checking out too many books from the library, I buy too many used ones on Amazon,” I answer with a wink. “Thank you for coming, Shirley. Please have a sandwich and a cup of coffee.” The memory of plastic covered, well-worn books I cherished as a child fills my head. I wonder if the engine of the antiquated bus still hums off-key. In the mirror over Shirley’s shoulder, I see the reflection of me sitting with my knees tucked and pressed up against my favorite bookshelf, stacking treasures beside me.

The reference librarian followed by the woman who staffed the video and young adult books department arrives, and soon the group of women that formed the nucleus of my mother’s life for seventeen years swells. I nurse a now tepid cup of coffee. My concentration wanders. I only retain snippets of stories told. Janet moves into the fold and supplants my attention, nodding and laughing at all the appropriate moments. I willingly fade into the background. Shifting from greeter to listener, I am relieved by a sudden wave of anonymity.

While the book women trade recycled stories about the library and my mother and nibble on ham sandwiches, I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a slight woman dressed in a waist-length, brown, faux leather jacket. The mysterious woman nervously shifts back and forth and tries to catch my eye. Gripping her bag as if she is stranded not on an iceberg of grief but in a dicey neighborhood after dark, her behavior attracts my attention. I do not recognize the woman. During a brief lull in conversation with the librarians, I excuse myself. In two long strides, I am at the agitated woman’s side.

“Thank you for coming this morning. I don’t believe we’ve met, but you likely knew my mother. How did you know my mother?” I finish securing a context for this stranger. The woman with closely cropped, dyed hair erupts into a spasm of desperate sobs. Who is this woman?

“Why don’t you and I sit down on the sofa,” I suggest pointing to a loveseat positioned underneath the wall’s mirror. I take her hand, bone-cold from the morning I rub her hands in mine and wait. Still ignorant of the woman’s identity, I retrieve a couple of Kleenex squares from my pocket and hand them to her.

The nameless woman’s words come slowly. Tangled and chastened by an attack of sadness-induced hiccups at first, her story crystallizes like a car gaining traction in the snow, Not from the library, not from a past life as a doctor’s wife, the woman sobbing beside me is Sherry, my mother’s hairpiece stylist. For as long as I can remember, my mother wore a tasteful hairpiece, a well-coiffed bun perched on the back of her head to cover thinning hair and a bald spot. In every childhood photo in which my mother plays a supporting role, Sherry’s tailored handiwork’s silhouette is evident.

Once gaining her composure, Sherry speaks of how shocked she was to pick up the newspaper and find the obituary I wrote. “Your mother was such a kind lady. When my son died, she called and wrote to me. I still have those letters. She was so very kind.” Sherry’s effort to choke these few words out into the air produces another round of tears. Is she grieving for my mother or her son? The circumstances of the son’s death had always been in question. Although never charged with murder, the son’s wife had come under the glare of police suspicion when the husband’s autopsy detected poison in his body. Sherry, convinced of her daughter-in-law’s role in her son’s death, poured out her suspicions to my mother. “I won’t keep you,” Sherry interjects as I shake my head no and insist she stay for a coffee.

“I won’t stay. I just wanted to pay my respects to your mother. Thank you for sitting with me. Even though this is the first time we have met, I can tell you are kind like your mother. I will miss your mother,” she declares, rising to her feet and slipping out the door like a shadow.

“Who was that woman?” Janet asks in mid-step. Approaching the sofa where I remain sitting, she announces, “I think the librarians are getting ready to leave.”

I nod and glance over at the disassembling group reaching for purses and coats. In the midst of the pending departures, my husband, Steve, holds coats and guides arms into sleeves. Though he has met so few mourners, Steve falls into conversations stunted by shock and sadness with ease, comforting strangers with a kind word or a brief but firm hug. Though I have barely had a moment to say two words to him since early this morning, I will be able to manage this day because I know he is close.

“The woman you were talking to was pretty upset,” Janet hints a second time, bringing me back to the present.

“Oh, that was Sherry, the woman who did my mother’s hairpiece for years. I never met her. Her son died, and I think she was thinking about him as much as Mom. Nice woman. Probably will never see her again, though. Funerals are weird that way, I guess. You have really intense conversations that evaporate as quickly as they brew. If she signed the guestbook, I’ll send her a note.”

With one eye on the entryway, I make a mental list of new arrivals, greeting and thanking each person individually. I recognize my mother’s acupuncturist and his assistant, but their faces will not stay with me. The car salesman who sold my parents each of their Buicks since the late 1960s corners me between the sofa and the entrance. His body language, polyester trousers, and a cheap gold chain peeking over his shirt collar suggest anything but chaste condolence. I squirm. Nod. Smile. Say, thank you. I raise my eyebrow. Janet sees my signal. Just as the one-sided conversation switches gears to what a lovely young woman I have become, Janet swoops in with the news that another guest has arrived. Leaving Janet to distract the harmless flirt, I intercept new arrivals.

A stout, short woman surveying the gathering of mourners enters the room and stops abruptly. Evaluating each person with beady, twitching eyes, her gaze lands on me. I examine her for a moment as well, and after a deep inhale, I reach her in one stride with my hand outstretched.

“You must be Anna,” the stranger declares, taking positive note of my conservative but stylish suit. “I’m glad you are not wearing black. So predictable and dismal. I am Madge Wilson, your father’s senior nurse on 4 East Ward. I never met your mother though I am sure she was a lovely person, but I recognized the name, Sochocky, in the obituaries and knew that she must have been married to your father.” Madge takes a wheezing breath and turns to sit on the couch by the door. I follow silently. I suspect there will be little opportunity to squeeze a word between Madge’s monologues. For this, I am thankful.

“As I said, I was your father’s senior nurse and, boy was he a challenge to work with each day. But he was the best doctor on the ward, and he liked me because I stood up to him. Madge, he would shriek, standing in the doorway to his office, and I would take my own sweet time getting to his door. Your father was an excellent doctor, though. So compassionate. Never gave up when so many others would pack it in too early. He used to call me into an examination room and put his feet up on the gurney while I cleaned up the mess left behind. Domestic, he wasn’t. And another interesting feature of your father is he was obsessed with the condition of his bowel movements. He always wanted me to judge his stool samples. Very strange. I think he was a hypochondriac,” Madge muses, before exploding into laughter.

The content rather than the location of her telling leaves me nonplussed. My father’s hypochondria, the subject of his daily constitution’s quality and condition, often drove him back to Duke University for evaluation.

Janet shoots me a look over Madge’s shoulder. I stare past both Janet and Madge wondering how many people can count stool sample stories told by a woman who does not even know the person who has died as part of their ‘strange things that happened at my mother’s funeral stories’? If Madge weren’t so genuinely quirky and florid with her description of my father’s obsessive medical habits, grief would win the battle for my attention.

As the two hours pass, I retrace not only the past of both my parents but moments of my own adolescent life as well. During a lull, my high school English teacher and yearbook advisor peers into the room. Dressed in corduroys, an elbow patched topcoat, and a thick fabric tie, he smiles and hugs me.

“Thank you so much for coming, Doug. I am just about out of conversation with people I barely know, if I know them at all. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am exhausted.”

“I know. Talking to everyone is so tiring, but I saw you making your way around the room like a skilled politician,” he winks and pats my arm. Politics, as well as books, cemented our friendship from the beginning. “I had to come. I was so shocked to read her obituary. She was such a lovely woman. Let’s sit down,” my favorite teacher gestures to the couch where I learned about my father’s stool obsession only moments before.

Sinking into the familiar fabric pricks me like a balloon, and I burst into tears that I have managed to keep at bay since the private service. As he had done thirty years ago, Doug retakes the reins as my confidante and listens to my rambled recounting of the past six months. Shaking his head, he comments, “The past few months must have been terrible for you and your husband. I have requested a Mass be said in your mother’s honor.”

“Doug, I’m afraid that my ambivalence about God hasn’t congealed much over the years, but thank you. Thank you for having a Mass said for Mom, and thank you for coming. Mom really liked you, but I suspect that’s because you always gave me good grades and kept me out of trouble with the priests and the nuns.” I grimace and then smile at the memories of how many occasions Doug had rescued me from punishment after one of my argumentative outbursts.

“Parent-teacher conferences were always enjoyable when I saw your mother. And I gave you good grades because you earned them. You probably still earn them. Besides, you are the best yearbook editor I ever had the pleasure to work with past and present.” The visitation numbers swell again, and Doug rises to his feet. “I signed the guestbook. Take care of yourself, Anna. Please. I know you are facing a mountain, but take care of yourself. I’m really glad I came,” he finishes.

When my high school boyfriend, Mark, sans braces, walks across our thirty-year gap, the two of us engage in a nostalgic but vaguely uncomfortable conversation. I stay mute, growing disconnected from the ambiance of a distant history he retells, a history of summer evenings when we drove through a maze of unpaved roads. For six adolescent weeks, summer evenings passed sweetly but awkwardly between us. With Elton John whining through the glowing dashboard, the ping, ping of gravel jumping under the tire rims, cracked the melody of Benny and the Jets into pieces. The sweet smell of corn stalks dangled in the muggy air. Red-winged blackbirds descended on plowed remains in the fields to feed. This was the South Dakota I once knew, the South Dakota I had to leave.

Condolences and nostalgia only carry a conversation so far, however. Our exchange about humid summer evenings collapses into a discussion about how Mark cannot believe he is raising two teenagers. I glance at my watch when he turns his head for a moment, making a mental note to ask for his email when a disembodied photo waves in front of me. Mark laughs. Both of us have seen this photo before.

In the Polaroid image, crepe paper decorations and a stenciled sign read: “Welcome Back, Anna. Dino and all of us love you.” At the sight of my first horse, his head thrust over his decorated stall door, standing under the sign, crepe paper strings falling off the dirty walls and gently waving in the breeze, I am catapulted back thirty years. For a moment, I look at the Polaroid image of the sign made by my stablemates. I turn to see my high school riding instructor’s brown eyes welling with tears and collapse in her arms.

Too many reminders. Too much conversation. Too many days to come as a motherless daughter. The emotional tank I filled early this morning is running on empty. The string of condolences, repeated replays of stories and saddened questions about the cause of my mother’s death left me mentally scorched. When the room empties for the last time, I exhale all the conversations, all the tears, and all the memory stirred by the grief of others. I sit alone on the sofa. Kick my heels off. Lean back into the plumped pillows, staring without focus into the empty room.

My mother’s funeral may be over, but the aftermath of her death has only just begun.

I have moved up a generation.

Executor’s year begins

In the premature dark, the snow squeaks and crunches beneath our ginger steps. The icy winter resurfaced, plummeting the temperature below zero and into the negative double digits. Arms around each other, Steve and I bounce up and down on the street corner, desperate for the light to change from red to green.

“Of course, our appointment with an attorney we have never met has to be on one of the bitterest of nights since Mom died,” I mutter through my wool scarf. “The lawyer’s office is in the building is across the street, one with the time and temperature sign flashing. “How can sign’s electronics even register negative thirty,” I snort, my breath inside the scarf’s dampening the wool.

After crossing the freshly plowed road, Steve casts open a glass door. The cold air meets the stolid warmth inside, and a thick film of condensation forms on the glass. Pausing to knock the snow off his boots on the entryway’s beige carpet, Steve locates the office floor and suite number on the building’s wall index. I shift my weight on the carpet well-past its saturation point from a day’s worth of entrances and exits and chew another fingernail.

We ride the elevator in relieved silence. Earlier, the culmination of tension from the funeral, ceaseless, lengthy phone calls about the Canadian farmland and the house in England, and a handful of our own bills that passed their due date by one or two days had ignited a spark of simmering frustration between us. When Steve left the apartment to buy more U-Haul boxes, I beseeched Janet: “He is driving me nuts, Janet,” I sobbed, striking the dining room table with my fists. “When Steve was in Santa Fe, before the funeral, I had a routine. I have my own way of handling calls and meetings and letters and priorities. Steve doesn’t mean to, but he interferes, tells me I am doing things wrong. I have known the players in England and Canada for years. Tell him to get off my bloody back,” I railed, the onset of tears dissolving into a foul puddle of marital discord.

Later, after I left the apartment upon Steve’s return, fleeing to Barnes and Noble under the pretense that I needed a book about the legalities of settling an estate, Janet quietly approached my husband. “Anna is in “campaign mode.” You know she gets like this, and I learned years ago to stand back and allow her to move at her own speed. Believe me, I know her behavior drives all of us crazy sometimes, but part of her mania is a way of dealing with her grief, too,” Janet reasoned, soon soothing Steve’s own anxiety. Janet recognized another truth: my frenzy to pack up my mother’s apartment and understand my responsibilities for a moderate yet intricate estate was a response not only instigated by grief and practical necessity but also by a compulsion to erase a life without my mother in it. I returned to the apartment and calmer marital waters.

The elevator door opens, and Steve and I peer out into a nearly colorless, symmetrical passageway. Decorated in a palette restricted to brown shades, both sides of the hallway host equally nondescript artwork featuring Latin legal lexicons and graphic allusions to justice being blind. “I hope our lawyer is more invigorating than this hall,” I quip, forcing a tepid smile.

Near the end of the hallway, a light casts a shadow on my boots. Steve nods and follows me into a seemingly barren office. While we struggle out of our winter coats, a slight and wiry man with a hooked nose appears, his bony hand outstretched towards both of us. Whether due to my grief, the lateness of the hour on a frigid winter evening, or simply our lawyer’s way of doing business, introductions are made and disposed of expeditiously.

After Steve and I are seated, the man with a face like one of the Gringott bankers in Harry Potter listens. At the same time, I begin retracing an abbreviated version of the events leading up to our visit, beginning with my mother’s stroke, winding through the discovery of the covert will she penned after my visit in August, before culminating with her death.

“As well, my mother’s bank and investment representatives froze all accounts after her death.” The gnome-faced lawyer nods without comment.

I fail to mention that the bank manager has turned a blind eye to any checks I write for bills.

Bending over a fresh piece of yellow legal paper, he records the events described with an expensive Montblanc fountain pen, its tip scratching across the once virgin page. “Do you have a copy of your mother’s will?” he inquires without looking up.

“Two wills, actually.” The fervent note-taking ceases for a moment, and the lawyer shoots me a penetrating look through his round spectacles. Worried that the admission suggests nefarious behavior on my part, I continue without allowing our counsel to interject. “I have a copy of the will she had drawn up in the early 1980s by an attorney after my father died. All of the beneficiaries mentioned in this will are dead. But I also have a handwritten will that my mother wrote herself five months ago,” I state, cautiously choosing my words and handing both wills across the desk. For a few minutes, no one speaks.

With effort, I suppress the urge to chew another fingernail.

“Well, the handwritten will is the most current demonstration of your mother’s wishes, thereby nullifying the one drafted thirty years ago.” The breath I have been holding expires like a punctured balloon. “Of course, you are Anna, and you are Steve,” he affirms, glancing first at me and then to Steve. We both nod. “A holographic or handwritten will does not present a problem in and of itself. Many states, including South Dakota, accept handwritten directives as part of probate proceedings.” I breathe out again with what sounds more like a moan as the familiar pinpricks of tears gather in the corners of my eyes. I will never know my mother’s motivations behind her writing another will, nor will I ever learn her reasons for keeping it a secret from me. “But, there is a problem with your mother’s will in that there is only one witness signature,” the Gringott banker’s doppelganger continues.

The room falls into silence once more. I turn to Steve and mouth the words, “Now what?” drumming the stubs of my fingernails on the armrest. The proximity of my rising anger overtakes the threat of an embarrassing wave of tears. Has my mother made a legal mess because of her stubbornness?

“Interestingly enough, only two states allow use of a holographic will with only one signature in matters of probate. Once again, South Dakota is one of those states. However, you will have to sign a legally binding affidavit attesting to the fact that this is your mother’s handwriting,” he announces.

Shooting me another probing glance before continuing to scribble notes, he asks, “Can you attest to this writing being in your mother’s hand?”

“Yes, I can. Without question, the most current will was written by my mother,” I answer without hesitation. While over the years, the words my mother wrote shrunk, the letters growing closer together, the directive printed in block letters on a piece of gray paper was undoubtedly written by my mother, signed by her, and witnessed by her closest friend in Sioux Falls, Margaret.

“With this holographic will and your signature on an affidavit attesting to the validity of the writing, I can request the court to open probate proceedings on behalf of your mother’s estate. Customarily, such a request is made, and a judge assigned to the case appoints the named parties as executors, you and Steve, within two weeks. However, given that Christmas is two days away and several district court judges are on vacation, I anticipate this result will take longer. In the interim, you may not access your mother’s bank and investment accounts, nor will you be able to sell or change any lease agreements with regards to the property in England and Canada.” Upon completing his recitation of the ins and outs of prairie probate proceedings, the man who will be the first of five lawyers to settle my mother’s estate lays down his pen. Reaching for a tissue, lawyer “number one” removes his circular glasses and wipes a fleck of dust from the lens before an afterthought occurs to him.

“Do you have legal counsel in Canada and England?” I shake my head, picking at the corner of my index finger’s half bitten nail sensing my responsibilities tighten into a legal pretzel. “Probate proceedings differ from country to country, even state to state, so I strongly advise you to retain legal counsel in both England and Canada as it is likely that separate probate proceedings will be required.

Once you are named executors in this country, your standing will be legally established and may be useful as you proceed in other countries.”

One day after my mother’s funeral and two days before Christmas and my executor’s year has begun.

Last will and testament

In my effort to categorize my mother’s world, I discover that my mother still has her instinct to hide envelopes of money around the apartment. Burying bills between the folds of her bras and underwear, underneath my grandmother’s pearls in her jewelry case, on the lower shelf of her closet in an old Tiffany’s box, in every pocket of her purses and wallets, she maintained her obsession to save every dollar for an emergency. At first, I count the found envelopes’ contents, marking the totals on the adhesive flaps, and occasionally cram a twenty or two into my own wallet to pay for hospital parking or gas, but rarely to pay for food. A week since my mother’s stroke, I am still not eating.

Turning a blind eye to the paper maze on the bed and envelopes of money, another web of questions that cannot be answered arises. At lunch earlier today, my mother’s friend, Margaret, asked me if I had found my mother’s handwritten will recalling that she had witnessed my mother’s signature. To shield my shock and growing unease, I lied, saying that though I had not found this will, my mother had told me that she had written it.

I turn away from the closet and survey the room. Why did my mother handwrite a second will? What does it say, and in a silhouette of Ukrainian paranoia, I wonder if she has sliced me out of her will like an amputation? Where did she bury it? Why did she hide it, to begin with, and fail to tell me that it existed in the first place? The will my mother had prepared by an attorney thirty years ago after my father died was the only will I knew existed.

To say that my mother is private is an understatement, but there is an uncomfortable undercurrent to her behavior. A lack of trust between us budded before my father died and bloomed with the glory of spring after his death when my answer to a question she asked to set our course for the next twenty years.

Do you want to return to England to live? Even in the tenderness of grief, I realized the question had only one correct answer to assuage my mother’s brittle state. Yes. But, in a flood of tears, I answered incorrectly. My mother created a mythology of her England in time, subsisting on a diet of remorse, bitterness, and longing until she became a reluctant American.

Only when I read the condolence letters my mother received after my father died did I realize that I might have put myself in the invisible prison as well. Living straddled between two countries and cultures, with no steady footing in either one, I considered that I really did deserve the subtle punishment my mother unwittingly inflicted upon me when I said I did not want to return to England to live. In the end, however, the decision she made to stay in South Dakota, a decision she made in a spinning world of crisis, built an impenetrable wall between us long into my adulthood.

Frantic to replace all that I believed I stole from my mother, I read the same books as she did, all about England, all about the Second World War, trying to understand her England. As before, when I was a child, I listened to the intonations of her accent, trying to mimic each syllable. Each morning, I scoured British newspapers and websites, searching for a common thread to discuss with my mother with authority. Television programs written with a British lens of self-deprecation or shrewd and dry humor became my cultural lifeline, severing connection to the culture and country in which I lived.

Over time, I metamorphosed into a life that did not belong to me.

A show pony that just wanted to be pastured, I obediently produced hollow success, too. Ribbons and trophies when I was in high school, excellent grades, for the most part, scholarships and awards, my reputation in my mother’s eyes improved when I succeeded, but plummeted when I stumbled. Knowing that errors in practice or judgment would compromise a scholarship or, more likely, her respect, I denigrated myself for every mistake I made, blaming myself for every failure, real or perceived. The undercurrent of her sacrifice subsumed me; though my mother relinquished her country for me, to be anything less than worthy of the decision, she forced herself to make would be tantamount to betrayal.

Writing cases. I should have thought to look for the other will in her two writing cases. The newer ones, a dark wood box with her initials engraved on a piece of metal, is the one she uses most often, but where is the scarlet red, leather box my mother received for her twenty-first birthday? Crouching on my knees, my hands tap the dark space of her desk touching emptiness until…leaning deeper into the cavity my index finger rubs against a hardened object. Inching the unknown object closer to me, the abandoned, forgotten writing case emerges.

With my mother’s writing box under my arm and a wine glass in my left hand, I clear enough space on the bed to sit and lay the case beside me. Once always firmly clasped to prevent curious eyes, the lock releases with a press of a button. Contents spill over the sides onto the floor. Clippings detail the demise of the local coop in Bury St. Edmunds, and the latest innovation in heart treatment at Papworth Hospital, the fateful location where my parents met working on the medical ward.

Turquoise colored airmail letters in my grandmother’s handwriting leak with regret she felt for being unsuccessful in her attempts to discourage my mother’s marriage. Dozens upon dozens of obituaries recap my sixth-grade teacher’s life, my riding instructor’s father, long past doctors, and nurses that comprised my father’s daily life, librarians who my mother worked with over seventeen years, and one of my mother’s first boyfriends. To feed the inclination, to sum up, decades of life, but abbreviated entries in any local paper neglect to verify a history of spent dreams or devastating loss or joyful moments peeking through the too familiar clouds of disappointment.

The fact that my mother kept each obituary, refusing to throw away memory or history failed to surprise me. All these years, ever since I was a small child, my mother kept track of all those who entered her circle, even those whose stay was brief. I did not inherit her commitment to keeping track of those crossing into my life over the years. I severe connections with employers, lovers, and friends alike, placing the memory in a chest that remains unopened like her writing box once did.

Buried between the pages, I find a letter written in my own hand at the age of ten, imploring my mother to return from England. Upon my great aunt Stella’s death, my mother returned home, leaving me at the age of ten to care for my father.

In a child’s handwriting, the letters cascade into a steeper slant with each desperate line. In places, the paper puckers. Our dog was dying before my eyes. Why couldn’t my father see the dog was dying, I wrote? How long did the letter take to arrive in my mother’s hands? Was the dog still alive when she read my pleas? Memory fails me on that score, but I remember hiding in my bedroom closet. Wedged between a dented wagon and Barbie’s pumpkin orange mobile camper, writing. I hid from my father for fear that he would see my letter as a betrayal. Even at the tender age of ten, I feared the consequences of speaking uncomfortable truths, burying my voice in the silence.

After two hours reading faded newspaper clippings, opening each envelope including the one I penned, scanning the lines of each letter, I acquiesced to the knowledge that the writing case did not hide the secret will.

Something else portended my mother’s fate, however.

When I go to close the lid, a passport-sized, black and white photo of my mother, wedged between the folds of a leather pocket, catches my eye. Sliding it out of the compartment, I stare at the image of my mother clad in a turtleneck sweater, her everyday hairpiece perfectly coiffed. A thought as faint as her ambiguous expression in the image crosses my mind.

I have found the photo to use for her obituary, the obituary I know I will have to write. Tucking the unfamiliar photograph in my wallet, the last of my faith in my mother’s recovery slip away.

Once a refuge, now a haunting

A lavender scent lingers on the pillows piled neatly on my mother’s king-sized bed in which I will never sleep. True, a panoply of annuity and investment records, brown-edged deeds to overseas properties, crisp cream bank statements, tax filings dating back to my father’s death thirty years ago, and a heap of my mother’s American and British passports, my father’s too, as well as my own, rise like a loaf of freshly baked bread disclosing our collective web of identity.

Mounds of paper I handle with aplomb, but the thought of stripping the walls bare and folding and stacking sweaters still smelling of her scent cripples me. Yet, to clear the past away of items that may form the nexus of my future seems a defilement of my mother’s waning life. More like an evidence room than a bedroom, I have fallen into my mother’s habit of preserving the past, too.

Each evening I pull the cushions off the sofa bed in the living room, stacking them on a dining room chair pushed back from the galley kitchen, and pile is worn blankets, duvets, and pillows on the bony mattress. I read by the light of Christmas tree lights, which glow day and night. Against the winter darkness, the lights twinkle and sparkle without devotion. Still, without the soft glow and the lights catching the blushing ornaments, I cannot sleep, if only drifting off for an hour or two.

The home my mother created gave her sanctuary from her memories of my father’s arbitrary, war-induced rages, her loss of England, and the foundation for a new life. When my mother turned the key in the lock eight days ago, she could not have known it would be for the last time.

These four walls that were once a refuge for my mother are now haunting for me.

As evening hours tick into another day, I frantically cull and file, sort, and discard. My ‘dinners’ of sherry and bowls of nuts and crackers remain uneaten. Most nights, I wander through the apartment, absently entering and exiting each room and mentally sifting through my mother’s belongings: what to save and pack, what to give away, or discard. I silently categorize the paintings on the wall she has collected with care, the china figurines of a nurse and a woman dressed in hunt attire that has sat on the bookshelves since I was in high school, the paperweights on the piano that is never played, and assorted mementos from my grandmother’s house in England that my mother cleared and sold when I was in college.

Once upon a time, my mother’s job was to sort through her own family’s belongings in another country. The candlesticks from the front room mantelpiece, the silver hairbrush, comb, and dimpled mirror engraved with my grandmother’s initials, the brass turtle and maiden handbell, original watercolor of Westminster Abbey, painted from the Dean’s Yard, a couple of pins belonging to her Aunt Stella, Shetland wool throws, the hand-carved mahogany bellows from the front hall and a small collection of books by the Bronte sisters. Diligently she sorted linens from bustles and pearls, emptying each drawer and wardrobe of cardigans, cotton nightgowns, handkerchiefs, and blouses. There were blankets and comforters, cast iron pots, and crystal vases ready for sale. In an old cedar trunk, she found brand new sweaters from a woolen shop in Scotland, still sealed in the original plastic bags.

Sixteen years later, these hints of her family home blend into my mother’s apartment. The hand-carved wooden bellows hang in her hallway, retired from duty, silent and breathless—the mahogany chest of drawers stores her winter sweaters and the local telephone book. My grandmother’s vanity set lay on the dresser, unused. My mother regretted not taking an engraved warming-pan that hung next to the bellows in the front hallway. I am not like my mother, am I? I don’t live in the past anymore, yet, I am the one left behind to salvage an unfinished life.

The hallway between the front door and the bedrooms are lined with floor to ceiling closets. Each shelf, every inch of the floor, is locked in a war for space. In the ‘office supply’ end of the far closet opposite my adolescent bedroom, stacks of envelopes of every size lean precariously cascading to the floor if the door is closed too sharply. Battery stashes and dozens of unopened rolls of scotch tape. Post-it note packages of every size and color packed into a cardboard box with the Union Jack on its lid. Paper clips and file folders, padded envelopes, white and yellow, large and small. Tubes of brightly colored Christmas paper scattered with images of scarf clad penguins and bow-tied teddy bears. Bags of bows. Every item is diligently saved for a day that will never come.

From room to room, I wander, plucking random objects infused with potent memory my mother and I both understand, hers perhaps more indelible like a scar, mine skating on the surface like a blemish. Objects I lived with through high school and college, and still, others that my mother added after I left home, I recognize. Others, appearing during the years when I tried to put my own life in order, are silent. No trace of security echoes in my fingertips when I hold an unfamiliar vase or a silver salt savor. Instead, my hand strokes each object like worry beads, desperately attempting to drive the nagging sense of impending loss away from my mind. I move slowly and without focus, hunting through one drawer – boxes and garbage bags beside me – before leaving the room and starting another unfocused search for what I do not know in another room.

This sorting is not unfamiliar to me; I have been sorting since I was five years old, first my belongings, and now, with my mother’s stroke, the remainders of a life she will likely leave behind. In a routine I carve through a haze of sleep deprivation and grief, I dismantle my mother’s life, yet, I did not anticipate the discovery of hauntings of my father’s life and death, too.

Earlier I had retrieved a metal lockbox from my mother’s bedroom shelf. I tried the latch, and it opened easily. Inside, the box was full of expired pill samples, some of the bottles stamped with use-by dates back in the 1970s. Most of them were pharmaceutical samples my father received from drug company representatives visiting the hospital. I had a vague recollection of sitting on my parents’ bed, the pillbox open, and my father filling a syringe with smallpox vaccination. He gave my mother and me inoculations before we went to Peru the spring I turned ten, and I remember being relieved that he was the one giving me the shot. I was afraid of going to the doctor. The waiting room smelled like burnt onions and antiseptic; the doctor reeked of cigarette smoke and fading breath mints. The nurse wore orthopedic shoes that did not make any noise when she walked; her bedside manner was a witch from a fairy tale.

Behind the pillbox, I find a plastic bag full of condolence letters with envelopes 1980 or early 1981. These letters poured in during the summer after my father’s death. My mother answered each one faithfully with a handwritten note and a copy of his obituary printed in one of the national medical journals. I remember her sitting on the couch, packed boxes ready to move stacked up around her, reading each letter. She read them out loud, her voice reedy and swaying. I remember hating to hear the tone of her voice I had not heard before, the words of adulation for the man who was my father, a man I sometimes think I barely knew. These letters had been too much for me to face at the time. On the cusp of what I believe will be my mother’s death, I wanted to read each one. I knew so few of the people who wrote. I was so embittered at the time. How could these strangers write as if they knew my father better than I, even though many did? I left my mother alone to respond to them.

I carefully divide the letters into piles on the floor. Ones from professional colleagues. Ones from patients. Ones from England. Ones from people I know, others from those I don’t. I slip one out of an envelope, quietly unfolding the thin paper. I will be up for hours at this rate, but I am determined to read each one. Some were delivered by hand to West Road; the envelopes quietly popped through the letterbox. There are letters written by people who had seen the newspaper’s announcement or had heard the news in the town. Letters came from old colleagues at Papworth, people both my mother and father had known, from patients of my father’s, from nurses and other doctors, from my mother’s friends, and those of my grandmother, the handwriting slanting from old age. There was a letter from my riding club and one from my sixth-grade teacher.

I wipe my running nose and my eyes on the sleeve of my sweatshirt by three a.m. I am exhausted; my mind is racing. I count the number of letters remaining — eight. Only eight letters from more than one hundred, but the prospect of finishing is daunting. I rise to look out of the window. The streetlights have gone out, but the moon is nearly full. I am completely overwhelmed by these letters, by the poetry of some of the lines, the genuine kindness of people I never knew.

How did my mother manage to read these, respond to each one? I once believed I could never have done all she did, but now I know that I will do the same and answer every letter and card I know will come.

I look around my room in the half-light. The metal bookshelves with my mother’s paperback books. Since I was a child, the record player I had sitting in my old room listening to Peter Wolf and Fiddler on the Roof. In the closet, a formal I wore once in high school hangs out-of-date. My fingers spread out the remaining letters. One more. My hand circles the letters like I am picking a card for a magic trick. Some of the handwriting is too difficult for me to read. I look at the envelopes, selecting one written in black ink from a Mr. Bridges. A few hours ago, I read another one from this man and copied it on a yellow legal pad, his words so gentle, so calm and lucid. He wrote the second one in response to my mother’s holiday letter. He was a widower, a friend of my grandmother’s, a man who never met my father.

I read past his thanks for my mother’s Christmas card and various other incidentals, thinking that perhaps I won’t read the entire letter until I come across the following paragraph:

“I had realized before you told me that your mother would be shattered that you weren’t coming to live in England. She has not mentioned it to me, but, of course, as your Mother, she must have felt she wants to be close to help you. But I’m sure; by now, she must have realized (even if she is deeply disappointed) that you have made the right decision. In a majority of ways, Anna is an American and must finish her education in the U.S.A. You had already made this decision while Serhij was with you, and I’m sure both your decisions have been the right ones. The ‘pull’ to you, personally, back to England must be strong, but Anna’s is the young life, which holds the future, and you must – as you have done – put that first.”

I have always understood that my mother sacrificed her country, her family, her home for me. Reading this letter confirms what I have always known: it is time for my mother to go home.

Baking away grief

The fruitcake batter, rich with Brazil nuts, walnuts, pecans, dried cherries, cranberries, and dates, rises slowly. Resisting the overwhelming urge to open the oven door for the third time, I wait to learn if my cakes match my mother’s ones once made at Christmas. Baked for friends and old workmates from the public library, my mother’s cakes attained a legendary holiday status, christened the best fruitcake ever tasted. Trays of mince pies line every surface of my kitchen counter, too, the scallop-shaped button pastries burst with hot, sticky, dried fruit.

Though I bake the mince pies in the shadow of my mother’s history, I adjust the fruitcake recipe with the fruits of my own time. Gone are the maraschino cherries, green candied fruit, and orange peel. Dried cherries and dates, steeped cranberries, freshly roasted green chili, and a hint of ginger replace the familiar holiday fruitcake.

A month before her death, my mother’s memory of baking her jeweled fruitcakes failed her completely. “I never bake!” she angrily claimed to those who ate the rich, dense fruitcake slices year after year.

Mince pies triggered more soothing images in my mother’s deteriorating memory. Weeks before her death, she retrieved the baking tins I now use from her cupboard and a jar of mincemeat to bake the dainty pastries.

Entering her apartment, after spending three days and nights in the ICU at my mother’s bedside, when I found my grandmother’s tins and the candied fruit on the kitchen counter, I burst into tears.

Like my mother, I am conscientious about food and purposefully eat smaller portions and leftovers without hesitation. I do not waste food. I love food and will eat anything offered to me except liver and game of any kind, the taste of blood and death is too consuming for me. I relish the primal process of eating with my fingers, moving hands to mouth. I love the earthy smell of green vegetables pulled from the dirt with the sweat of honest labor. The sweet smell of berries and nectarines in summer and apples and rhubarb in autumn reminded me of my grandmother’s flourishing garden and the days when I used to crawl under the netting in the summer heat to pick the pregnant fruit.

Though I ferret out offbeat food vendors like my father, buying fish and vegetable curries with a few Thai bot coins or freshly rolled tortillas from a child on a rural South American road, I do not starve myself as he did. I do not eat raw garlic – an old Ukrainian habit – preferring to suffocate omelets, lasagna, and salads with the pungent cloves of his addiction. I do not compulsively monitor my calorie intake, and my evening meals do not consist of bowls of white rice, either. Instead, I prefer the ecstasies of cheesecake and blindingly rich artichoke dip.

I am also a liar.

I buy twice the food I need if it is on sale, squirreling it away in cupboards and the freezer, yet I ration what I buy, metering it out for a holiday, or a birthday, or for an undisclosed moment when hunger will surely strike. I am lazy about food, too. I skip meals choosing work over food. If I can finish this project, I will have something to eat. Sometimes, I even tell myself that I have to earn the right to eat.

War habits never truly fade, especially when the habits are not one’s own.

Yet, each time I extract another perfectly browned cake or platter of mince pies from the oven, my own addiction to history and my own obsession with memory dims a little more. Pressing the ready-made dough into the bottoms of freshly washed and greased tins and spooning fresh mincemeat into the tiny dimples repairs my ruptured union with the past.

Baking might have guided me through the first year of fresh grief, but redemption itself comes in many forms, especially when it silences the politics of bread for good.

A segregation of mourning

In last week’s blog post, I wrote that perhaps death was the great equalizer. Yet, class and gender once segregated the commonality of death between rich and poor, men and women.

The Victorian Age, marked by good manners, industrial and technological advancements, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and that pesky ‘woman question’ wrote its own chapter in the book of mourning etiquette, too.

A complex set of rules, guided by one’s station in life, dictated appropriate mourning behavior and rituals. In the house, clocks would be stopped and reset to the deceased’s exact time of death. Mirrors covered with black crepe prevented the deceased spirit from being trapped in the glass. To prevent the devil’s possession of anyone still living, photographs were turned over.

Superstition may have guided a household; mourning between the genders was segregated by fashion and behavior. A woman’s funereal clobber, comprised of black clothing meant to conceal a body’s shape and a veil of black crepe, became known as ‘widow’s weeds.’ Mourning jewelry rose to prominence in the upper class. People often wore a cameo brooch or a locket designed to hold a lock of the deceased hair.

The dictates of appropriate mourning behavior did not end with the content of one’s wardrobe, however. Widows were expected to not only wear their mourning ensemble for at least two years and up to four years and were discouraged from entering society for twelve months. During a widow’s mourning period, clothing restrictions were relaxed at six or nine-month increments, effectively ensuring the grieving woman lived as a hostage to her grief.

Money and status plays have always been central to how a passing is marked and a person recognized. Anyone who has had to plan a funeral for a loved one understands that death is a business. Caskets and urns, florists, and stationary are not contemporary choices of the grieving. Indeed, the Victorians may have originated the entire industry!

However, fashion, behavior, and money may not be the preeminent influence on one’s approach to mourning. The Victorians may have been Christians, but deep in the cultural bloodstream beats a Pagan’s heart, too.

Indeed, superstition weighed heavily on behavior as much if not more than social mores. I leave you with a handful of superstitions to ponder courtesy of the Victorian age!

Never wear anything to a funeral, especially shoes.

Stop the clock in a death room, or you will have bad luck.

If you don’t hold your breath when going by a graveyard, you will not be buried.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Treading another’s path of loss

Three days before my mother’s memorial in Bury St. Edmunds, my husband and I enter my mother’s, now my own bungalow with the estate agent. I walk across the house’s slanted floorboards, my fingers tracing the wall cracks brought on by damp, and purse my lips in disappointment. The house that my mother once told me was her last tie with England was a dump. When a gleam of light in the middle of the living room’s wall catches my eye, I discover that I can put my finger in a small hole through the mortar and have a keyhole view of the front garden.

Though my mother had spent thousands of pounds a few years ago to refurbish the kitchen and the bathroom, the well-executed improvements had the appearance of roses blooming in a patch of thistles. Marginally better outfitted and constructed than one of the college houses I preferred to forget, this house was legally mine. With the conclusion of probate maze, my husband and I were now absentee landowners of a dilapidated house built between the First and Second World Wars when building materials were in short supply.

The house my parents bought for $4,000 pounds from old Mrs. Ridley, a friend of my grandmother’s whose failing memory lead to her death when she forgot to turn the gas off the stove and accidentally asphyxiated herself, the house that once had been the answer to my mother’s dream of reclamation of her English life was the cornerstone of my modest inheritance.

The scales abruptly fall from my eyes; the prospect of ever living in this house has never been dimmer. The diagonal crack in the wall may indicate damp seeping through the plaster but may, in fact, be more damaging; the house is likely sinking into the earth recently saturated by weeks of rain.

West Road, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

“I’m afraid this house should be torn down,” Steve whispered as I opened the back door to the rickety conservatory my parents had built in the 1970s. Upon invitation, I played with the tenant’s children in this narrow tube, scuttling in and out of the open doors. Painfully overgrown and neglected foliage blocks any view of the cantilevered fence I once climbed over from my great Aunt Stella’s garden. I can neither see the present nor the past in this garden, in this house and now the prospect of its future dissolves.

“With the departure of the current tenants, new ones will have to be found unless you want to sell,” my mother’s estate agent muses. “Trees will have to be seen to and clipped back, too. The garden is truly in a wretched state,” the woman, with a verbal pace of any Londoner, frowns.

Tracing a pattern with my shoe in the dirt, I pick dead leaves off a bush. Thinking? Dreaming? Panicking? Finally, turning my attention from the bush in need of much more help than my distracted pruning, I respond.“I think it’s best, Pat, if we find another tenant. Though my mother made some improvements to the bungalow over the years, I fear that the house has some structural issues that should be addressed before we hope to sell it. I agree that the trees in both the front and back gardens are sorely overgrown. Please go ahead and contact a trimmer as soon as possible so it can be done before another tenant moves in,” I answer, noting that my statement is my first instruction uttered as a property owner and will likely be far from the last one.

I turn away, not quite ready to tread my mother’s path of loss.

Each morning, a cacophony of crisis emails flood my inbox. Cracks in the house’s interior walls widen. Plaster disintegrates into dust. Rainwater and birds destroy the roofing—roots from a tree near the front door rupture the concrete walkway. Bit by bit, stone by stone, tree by tree, the property that was once my mother’s salvation has become my inherited nightmare. Though I approve bids for repairs long overdue and request detailed accounts of work completed, paying invoices from contractors suggested by the estate agent, the house, and its future, like my mother ignoring her chronic, life-threatening symptoms, is terminal.

The proverbial shoe I waited for dropped like a bomb six months into my overseas ownership: the degrading of the mortar in the brickwork jointing was due to a chemical reaction, probably a sulfate attack requiring mortar/brick testing to be taken from the affected walls for laboratory testing. A sulfate attack, the source of the house’s crumbling in the mortar joint, had been evidenced when I poked my finger through the brickwork after my mother’s memorial. The rapid expansion of the evident plaster cracks diagonally crossing the house’s interior walls suggested a weakening of its structure.

With this internal assault of chemistry and its resultant damage, all my suspicions pointed in one direction; my mother’s house, the first house I have ever owned, was crumbling.

Other Side of Sadness Found in Objects

After the funeral and the memorial, after delivering twenty boxes of clothes and kitchen wares to the local domestic violence shelter, and before the task of stripping the walls of my mother’s apartment of her coveted ‘art gallery’ of English scenes of memory, one morning I fled the four walls that had cosseted me in high school to seek sanctuary from my grief.

I fled to a local book store.

Wandering the aisles of self-help tomes, the titles of which made me cringe, I read the spines of assorted books on how to manage grief. Workbooks outlined Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, posing the question, how do you know if you are progressing? Texts outlining how belief in God was the only path to recovering from acute sadness. One or two admonishing the reader to dig down and focus on survival alone.

Needless to say, my place of sanctuary transposed into four walls of dread….until I located one book tucked in the corner of the ‘grief shelf,’ a manuscript that flew in the face of the conventional view of grieving, encapsulated in the mantra of five stages, suggesting that the only option any of us have when a loved one dies is to accept and endure. In other words, get over it and mind you do so quickly.

The book that became my solace and a reminder of not only my inner strength to not only accept and endure but learn how to thrive again is The Other Side of Sadness: What New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.

Author George A. Bonanno guides the reader through topics both real and uncomfortable for some to acknowledge, each one pointing to the central tenet of resiliency.

After my mother died and after the initial few months of death’s aftermath, yes, feelings of loss overtook me sometimes, but also a recognition that my life was now my own and not lived in the shadow of her history or my father’s life.

While eight months later, grief resurfaced, I understood that the decisions I made regarding my mother’s estate were mine to make. No eyebrow would raise in doubt. No sigh would undermine my confidence in knowing that it was the correct decision to leave my job and focus on my writing. I did not have to explain my shift in priorities or defend choices to anyone, even myself.

After clearing my mother’s apartment, my husband and I drove back a sixteen-foot truck half full of my mother’s things. At the time, even recognizing that I had to be ruthless in my choices and that most of the life she built would be given away to friends or charity shops, parting with her artwork, commemorative Royal wedding mugs, English cottage sculptures, and the jewelry that she loved was a decision that I was not ready to make.

Over time, however, the presence of my oldest friend, Janet termed ‘motherabilia’ suffocated my ability to move up a generation.

Last Saturday, I said goodbye to the last cherished, ‘motherabilia’ at a local flea market.

Among the items that brought joy to others were: 44 pairs of earrings; 13 watches; 82 silver and gold necklace chains with about 24 different charms; 59 rings; 12 commemorative Royal Family wedding mugs; and 11 porcelain boxes.

Some readers may find the term ‘motherabilia’ and the act of selling off a parent’s effects churlish. In my case, I discovered that keeping the most meaningful items instead of cramming others into boxes that never see the light of day imbues good memories of my mother. I kept and still enjoy many of her books. Others were donated to a local library for the quarterly book sale. This act would please my mother, I know. All of my mother’s bookmarks receive regular attention and use, too.

We build our lives around objects through the decades, but sometimes ridding ourselves of symbols of another’s life is the only way to the other side of sadness for good.